“It’s good to have a break from talking about my penis,” Jack Reynor tells me.
Don’t fret. The Irish actor has not drifted into porn. Nor is he fretting about a “downstairs” medical problem. In the later stages of Ari Aster’s recent Midsommar, a folk horror that has generated buckets of chatter this season, Jack gets to run about with tackle fully uncovered. More than a few puritanical American journalists have been pressing him about it. (Jack, ahem, brought it up himself in our conversation).
“I don’t know. I guess some people were surprised,” he says. “You see so much female nudity in films. You see such awful things happening to women in horror films. You don’t see much of that happening to men in films.”
Fair enough. Jack is a great supporter of Midsommar, but we are here at the Galway Film Fleadh to discuss the world premiere of Bainne, his first short as director. As ever the Fleadh is abuzz with conversation about the developing trends in Irish cinema. Upcoming awards contenders such as Lulu Wang’s The Farewell and Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir play either side of domestic releases such as Ivan Kavanagh’s Never Grow Old and Shelly Love’s A Bump Along the Way. There will also be festivities.
“Yes, exactly. I am bringing down my spare liver in my suitcase,” Jack chortles.
Bainne (which went on to win best first Irish short at the Fleadh) features Will Poulter as a survivor of the Famine troubled by ominous spirits. It’s an auspicious debut. Shot in flinty black and white, the film takes its oblique narrative from the undervalued Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn. Long resident in Japan, Hearn, who died in 1904, was a fervent collector and translator of that country’s ghost stories. Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan, among the greatest Japanese horror films, is also based on Hearn’s work.
“I was fascinated to read about Lafcadio Hearn,” Reynor says. “He was an Irish guy and was a major contributor to western knowledge about Japanese culture. I bought a lot of his books and what fascinated me was the Irish sensibility in his writing.”
It helps that this was the end of the Famine. People weren't walking around everywhere. They had died or they had left
A fervent cineaste who runs a film club on Instagram, Reynor was reminded of the Irish ghost stories that his relatives used to tell when he was little. There were underexplored connections between these two cultures.
“I could set it in Ireland during the Great Famine when Hearn was growing up,” he says. “We could address the culture of shame and silence that came out of the famine. We invented ghosts in order to deal with that.”
The casting of his old friend and frequent collaborator Will Poulter was not without its perils. The Londoner, who appeared opposite Jack in Glassland, Detroit and the current Midsommar, is certainly among the most gifted actors of his generation, but he is being asked to speak Irish here. That is no small challenge. Mind you, he did do a stunningly convincing Dublin accent in Gerard Barrett’s Glassland.
“Having Will come over – an English person – was also good,” Jack says. “He spent 20 hours listening to podcasts about the Irish famine before he came over. He sat with Fin Dwyer, my friend who does that podcast, and talked to him about the Famine. He committed himself to empathising with the plight of Irish people as a result of British colonialism and economic policy.”
Poulter, a committed young fellow, spent more hours learning the dialogue and ended up feeling pretty confident with his vowels. Another area of potential difficulty was the depiction of suffering round and about the central character. As the folk behind the recent smash Black 47 admitted, one cannot present the wretched results of mass starvation in a way that is both realistic and in decent taste. Filmmakers are required to make compromises.
“I don’t think you can do it in good taste,” Reynor says. “It was a short film and I had to do it on a budget. I wasn’t going to cast a whole bunch of actors and have them come in and stand around in rags. There are only four characters in the films. It was an endeavour to create a tone of oppressiveness.”
It also mattered that the film is set late in the catastrophe.
“It helps that this was the end of the Famine,” he agrees. “There weren’t people walking around everywhere. People had died or they had left. The country was empty. It must have felt that way.”
Poulter is convincingly tormented and the pared-down story gets across the psychological roots of his unease. But it is David Grennan’s haunting photography that registers most strongly. I first met Jack when he was barely out of school. Even then, he was hungry for knowledge. Now 27, he seems to have accumulated an encyclopaedic knowledge of film. Asked about the monochrome images, he launches into a eulogy on the Japanese filmmaker Kaneto Shindô.
“I was always committed to black and white,” he says. “The films that inspired me visually are Kuroneko and Onibaba, Shindô’s movies. I like those very refined camera shots with wide angles and long moves. That gives it another dimension. I wanted it to feel like it was something that was old. I wanted it to feel like cinema from another time.”
John Carney, who directed Reynor in the lovely Sing Street from 2016, always suspected that the young man had other strings to his bow. His performance as a ruined older brother to the protagonist revealed a capacity for heroic charisma that Hollywood had yet to fully exploit.
“You knew directing Jack Reynor that it was just a question of time before he started making his own films. It’s annoying when it’s so good,” Carney told The Irish Times recently.
Reynor has been on a hectic journey over only a few short years. Born in Colorado to an Irish mother, human rights activist Tara Reynor-O’Grady, he was shipped back to Ireland when still a toddler. Early years were spent in Wicklow before moving to Dublin to attend prestigious Belvedere College. He told this newspaper a few years ago that he remembers “only bits and pieces” of his early life in Boulder. It seems as if the acting bug set in when he and his family got a gig as extras on Kevin Liddy’s Country in 2000. Jack’s film break came 12 years later in Kirsten Sheridan’s Dollhouse, but it was Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did that really announced Reynor to the world. Jack played a young well-off Dubliner who is implicated in the death of a young man in a drunken bust-up.
Sometimes news reports about Next Big Things come to nothing. This time, however, the industry delivered. He did blockbuster in Transformers: Age of Extinction. He did Shakespeare in Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth. He was back in Ireland for Sing Street. Somewhere in there he got bumped onto the shortlist of actors to play the young Han Solo in what eventually became Solo: A Star Wars Story. The role eventually went to Alden Ehrenreich, but Jack sounded sincere when he expressed something like relief to Tara Brady for this newspaper.
“That Han Solo movie is going to be really tough,” he said in 2017. “I think the guy who is doing it is a really good actor, but, for myself, I was afraid of it. I kept thinking: if you fuck this up you’ll ruin people’s childhoods. If it doesn’t turn out great, you won’t be forgiven. That’s a lot of responsibility. And even if it goes great, you’ll do it, people will know you only from that and that defines your career.”
This is a refreshing change: full frontal male nudity in a film about a guy who’s having the worst trip of his life in a hostile environment with his willy flying about
There’s something in that. It seems unlikely that, if he had ended up with that responsibility, he would be half so content as he is while preparing for the premiere of Bainne. Jack is positively bubbling with excitement. Directing really does seem to give him a special sort of pleasure.
“This was a much more fulfilling experience than putting a performance into something,” he tells me. “Just to have the ownership of it and execute it how I wanted – whether people felt it was shit or not. And what I liked most was getting up, putting on my own clothes, getting to be Jack all day and still getting to make a film. That was f**king amazing.”
The current shift away from acting comes as he promotes one of the most talked-about films in his career. Midsommer stars Florence Pugh as a young woman who spends time with a Pagan cult after losing her family to murder and suicide. Reynor is excellent as a ghastly boyfriend who seems committed to exploring all passive-aggressive aspects of toxic masculinity. There is a lot to chew over here.
“It has been mad,” he says. “The press tour has been a whirlwind. The response has been great. It’s been a great film to talk about and it feels like a substantial film. It’s been a pleasure to sit down and talk to people about it. Sometimes you’ll be doing press for things you don’t want to talk about. And that can wear you out. This was an opportunity to talk about something we all love.”
And his penis, of course. The press interest in his nude scene has been bizarre. American media still gets unduly het up about such things. Nobody blinks an eye when a female actor is asked to disrobe.
“That was one of the reasons I signed onto it,” he says. “Wow, this is a refreshing change: full frontal male nudity in a film about a guy who’s having the worst trip of his life in a hostile environment with his willy flying about. I don’t know. There should be more of that in film and less exploitation of female nudity.”
Quite right too. For the moment, Reynor is taking a rest from acting. He talks vaguely about directing a horror film set in Ireland during the 19th century. He talks more vaguely still about “something micro-budget just to see if I can”. All this will be happening from a base in his beloved Wicklow. You won’t get Jack to Bel Air.
“I never moved away and I never will,” he says. “I will stay down by the lake at Blessington.”